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Faraway Friends

The elderly owner of the guest house in the upper Assam tea town of Dibrugarh was worried. It was near midnight and his young guests were not in yet.  A search party set out, a frantic search began. They were finally located at the only restaurant open, watching the Greece, Nigeria soccer World Cup group match, engrossed in conversations with the master chef on the local cuisine and thoroughly enjoying the experience, oblivious of the scare and confusion they had created. “You nearly gave us a heart attack” said one from search party. The deserted roads sans street light coupled with the silence outside made them realize the gravity of the situation, touched at once by the concern.

It is not all fun and frolic however. While most young people   enjoy a summer break -coming home to unwind from colleges and universities, this lot was different. Walking through mud and slush, wading across streams and paddy fields full of leeches and mosquitoes, they have been visiting and exploring flood ravaged villages, schools, interacting with villagers in remote Brahmaputra river islands, the saporis. Far away from the comforts of their homes and families, in an entirely unfamiliar terrain, playing volleyball in the sandy saporis, befriending  villagers, relishing the local cuisine  and catching up with the occasional world cup soccer match have been  their only means of relaxation.

Taarika Shridhar, Julia Evans and Alon Slutzky are undergraduates (under 20) at Tufts University, Boston.  A little older (at 25) Brian Orland, is pursuing his post graduation in international studies at John Hopkins University, Washington DC.

Taarika, an NRI, grew up in Muscat. The tattoo in her arm displays her philosophy – “Ubuntu”, a classical African concept, calling for brotherhood of men. “Followed by Desmond Tutu” she tells me promptly, acquired while on a visit to South Africa, two years ago, as a mere 16 year old to perform community service. Julia, the budding litterateur- poet belongs to the southern American state of Arkansas. Coming into Boston, to study at Tufts was a big challenge for this small town girl.  She finds striking similarities between the simple village folk of Assam with people from her state.  Alon, an aspiring medico, has his roots in Israel from where his family moved 30 years ago to New  York City and were now based at New Jersey. He attended a Jewish high school, applied to Tufts in 2009 and has finished his first year under graduation.

The class mates attended a year long intensive course “Education for public enquiry and international citizenship” (EPIIC) run by the Institute for Global Leadership (IGL) at Tufts. The highlight of the course is a four day international symposium where discussions are held on different topics with panel discussions and interactions. The topic focused on this year was: “South Asia: conflict, culture, complexity and change”.

The entire course was an eye opener. The young minds were ignited speaking to a wide spectrum of academicians related to South Asia at the symposium.  The brilliant presentation by Sherman Teichman, Director of the IGL on South East Asia conflict convinced them that studying international relations without understanding this crucial region would be incomplete learning. Adds Julia,“I was enthralled by the complexities of SE Asia, conflict of language, of culture, life style, which was both shocking and stunning”. A brief introduction to N.E India was earlier provided to them by Prof Ananya Bajpayee from the University of Massachusetts. She focused on Manipur and the resentment of the people against the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) in the state.

The turning point came when they happened to meet eminent journalist, author and expert on the NE India, Sanjoy Hazarika who was invited to speak at the symposium. Tufts University has awarded the Dr Jean Mayer Award for Global Citizenship for 2010 to Sanjoy Hazarika for his advocacy of issues in India’s northeast to a national and international audience and recognized his lifelong contribution to improving the lives of the poor and marginalized in South Asia. They spoke to him. He motivated them to come to North East India, to his home state Assam, where he has been dealing with marginalized river island communities through the innovative Boat Clinic health initiative and helped guide their project. They read Hazarika’s “Strangers of the Mist” which gave them a good introduction to India’s north east, the challenges and problems plaguing the region and made up their minds. Complete with back packs, cameras and MP3 players they landed up in Assam in June 2010 for an internship programme.

Alon was to research on the boat clinics and the girls would conduct a study on the indigenous Muslim community of Assam besides attending health camps. The prospect of visiting Assam and the boat clinics was exciting for Alon who had wanted to see health service in a rural setting and this was the perfect opportunity.

“Every survival kit should include a sense of humour” would best sum up Brain Orland’s attitude to life. Brian is from Princeton near New Jersey graduating from Davidson College, North Carolina. His ready wit, sense of humour and near fluent Hindi brightens up conversations and helps him make friends aplenty. His father, a funeral director often had a young Brian helping him in work for that extra pocket money -ordering coffins, arranging for paperwork and funerals, leaning, in the process to “find humour in grim situations.” What eventually pulled him to India was reading the Vedas and Upanishads, a part of his course work. In early 2004, he was in India for the first time, coming six times in all. His stints at India have included voluntary work at a leprosy hospital in rural Tamil Nadu as an undergraduate, interning at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies(IPCS), New Delhi after graduating, studying India, Sri Lanka relations, attending a Hindi school at Mussorie,  to deepen relationship and make friends in this “language of the heart”.

Brian is in love with the Brahmaputra. His  interest in the river  developed during a research internship at Strategic Foresight Group in Mumbai (they undertook a South Asia water security initiative by focusing on the Brahmaputra).His Assamese friend at  IPCS had  briefed him on the natural   beauty of Assam and  NE India and the challenges faced by the region. Assam gave him the perfect opportunity to conduct a research project related to the Brahmaputra- the impact of floods on the economic development of the state.   Brian heard about the Centre for North east studies and Policy Research (C-NES) from common friends and contacted Sanjoy Hazarika, the Managing Trustee of the organization who offered the organization’s help in conducting the study.

From his flight to Dibrugarh, he saw the Brahmaputra for the first time and thought it was an ocean, so wide was the expanse. On arriving, the first thing he did was to walk down to the river to catch the sunset.  Next morning he traveled to Dhemaji perched on the top deck of a ferry and joined the Dhemaji  Boat Clinic, “SB Shanaz” and the health team conducting a health camp. He observed the camp – a mother with three children carrying medicines returning home from the camp walking   through the marshes, a sick young man on a bicycle, friends pushing it along, mothers carrying infants on their back for immunization, images he would carry back with him. He loved the spirit of the health team, their camaraderie and set off with community workers Santosh and Dharani visiting villages, with mud up to knees, conducting informal interviews about how people deal with floods. All seemed to have some plan- they stored food, most have boats and build second level in their houses when floods come in. Children enjoy it, he found out, not having to attend school.

Since then he has been visiting flood prone areas.  Jonai, Sadiya, Dhakuakhana,Dhemaji,Lakhimpur, Jorhat, Majuli and Dibrugarh are places at his fingertips, so familiar have they become during the course of his study    preferring these nondescript towns to “urban” Guwahati. He laments about people having got too used to floods with not much of a learning process happening for either the community or the government. How one practiced agriculture, growing different crops and crop timings, efficient grain storage are some of the workable solutions to deal with floods, feels Brian with a proper scientific study of the river which cannot be controlled otherwise.

Boarding “SB Swaminathan”, the Tinsukia Boat clinic, Julia, Taarika and Alon recall their trip, sailing to Laika sapori, a 4 hour journey from Tinsukia, sitting on the deck, admiring the picturesque lush green scenery. The health team members, forever jovial, indulged in some leg pulling about their “vanishing act” in Dibrugarh. Children from the sapori, waving their tiny hands, came running towards the Boat Clinic, welcoming the members.  They watched how efficiently the members set up the camp fighting all odds- tents pitched, tables and chairs for the doctors put, medicines arranged and people flocking the doctors, with gleeful children following their parents.

They have spend  nights in the boat , relishing the food served by the boat crew and  playing  volleyball with the health team after the camps were over, bare feet in the sandy sapori. They have explored villages, ending up once at a Gaon burah’s hut.  They watched his deft fingers make bamboo fish traps, even as they played a local board game akin to checkers, “cows and land”  with the villagers. At Jorhat, they visited the ancient Shiva temple at Negheriting accompanied by Muslim friends and were impressed by the spirit of tolerance.

Alon realizes that convincing people who are totally ignorant about health care immunization, sterilization, is not easy, but the health teams have managed to do so. Doctors have to ensure that people do not stop antibiotics halfway, when they feel slightly better. He fears however about “ Medicalization” setting in with people   getting addicted to drugs , seeing the rush for medicines at the camps and people taking offence when told by doctors otherwise.

Brain and Alon particularly liked their visit to Majuli visiting the 16th century Vaishnavite monasteries and interacting with the monks who were as curious about their lives as they were about theirs. The monks lamented about how the island is getting eroded year after year.

“Explore as much” was Julia’s spirit, she loved the local food, spicy chicken curry, ferns, local vegetables and mangoes, not getting to taste however  the Bhoot jolokia, the world’s hottest chili, keeping it for her next visit. Brian particularly loved the Mishing food, more so the traditional pork, charmed by their hospitality, visiting Mishing huts raised on stilts to keep them safe above the flood water, which is never too far away. The local beer, apong, hit him once and the first time he had the humble betel nut, the tamul, he had a smile on for fifteen minute, he jests. They were all charmed by this beautiful state, by the hospitality of the people though they had not a minute to themselves, being often flocked by villagers, as most have not come across light skinned Caucasians.  “But for the bumpy roads everything about Assam is good” sums up Brian.

These young people, whom I got to meet officially soon became near family members during their stay at Guwahati, bonding with my sons, the older of the two nearly their age group. They would join the boys in their music and guitar sessions. The only time I thought Julia was homesick was on hearing a familiar number by the Allman Brothers. The band comes from Little Rock, Arkansas, her home state. We would look forward to their visits, to enjoy the soccer matches, close friends joining in, sharing meals with lively conversation, opening up our vistas and minds. Taarika has given us an open invitation to watch the next world cup, sharing her apartment at Brazil where she hopes she will find a job by then. We take up the offer. Till 2014 then…

Bhaswati K Goswami

Published in The Assam Tribune

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